In my final year as a graduate student a pandemic struck, and it helped me recognize something that I had been trying not to acknowledge for years: that academia wasn’t the place for me to build a career. Grappling with this epiphany shook the foundations of the career that I’d been attempting to create for myself and left me feeling quite lost.
For years I’d been preparing myself to finish my degree, apply for postdoc programs that provide professional development for aspiring instructors, and secure a job as a lecturer. I was primarily drawn to this path because I love working with students and challenging them to think critically about how science is used to support a variety of ideas in the world around them. A likely secondary reason I was determined to pursue this path was because I went the K-Ph.D. (kindergarten to grad school with no gaps) path and all I’d ever known was academia.
I witnessed the challenges of becoming an academic for about eight years and debated if it was an environment I could thrive in, but my dream of challenging the next generation of minds was always stronger than those concerns. Until the pandemic, where I watched some academic institutions struggle to adapt and the flexibility that so many of us laud academia for seemed less present. At the same time, I heard stories from some parts of the private sector that indicated companies were providing flexibility for employees and adapting as the situation unfolded, which prompted me to pause and give more consideration to a career outside of academia. I eventually realized that the right fit for my next career move was away from academia, and likely away from the lab bench.
In hindsight, I’m glad I had this realization at the beginning of my final year in school while I still had resources and time to explore my options. At the time, all I could feel was grief that I was giving up on a long-held dream and panic that I wouldn’t be able to find anything else I would enjoy. So, I threw myself into attending career workshops trying to figure out what was out there and get tips on how to make myself competitive for these opportunities. At these workshops, the same few jobs got mentioned*: bench science in industry, government research, science writing, and consulting. It was nice to know of these other options, but at the same time I didn’t know how to pick which route I wanted to pursue, and I was terrified of picking one and later being unhappy with my choice.
I took a step back and decided that in order to find a path forward, I needed to do some self-reflection. The first thing I did was take stock of all the non-bench related things that I liked about being a graduate student, and I came up with the following:
Making sure projects stayed on track
Literature searches and review writing
Next, I made a list of the top three things I needed from my next position. This was harder than anticipated, because walking away from academia and prioritizing anything other than my love of research made me feel like a sellout. I struggled with immense guilt and the feeling that I had wasted my program’s effort training me if I was going to walk away from bench science. I pushed through that guilt and tried to embrace the feeling of selling out by asking myself what I would “sell out” for. Re-framing the question helped me come up with the following list:
Get my health back on track (good health insurance and work/life balance)
Become financially secure
Find a position that makes me happy. I feel most happy when doing:
Critical thinking/integrating new ideas and materials
Communication (written and verbal)
Ultimately, generating these lists helped me feel like I knew myself better. At the same time, they also made me feel that finding a position that fits all these criteria would be a tall order. Fortunately, I saw an email from my university that they were running a workshop that used a values-based approach for a job search. They had us complete the CliftonStrengths assessment and find our combination of 5 signature themes**. My signature themes fell almost entirely in the strategic thinking domain, people with strengths in this domain tend to enjoy analyzing information and using that to inform decision making.
Using this, I did some Googling and found that strategic thinkers tend to thrive as consultants. I took some time to learn about consulting and found that it might not suit me because I even though I like to analyze data to make decisions, I also like to stick around to see things implemented and help with the iterative refinements and process improvements. With this realization, I found that project and program management might be a better fit for me.
Even though I’d narrowed down my search to a single type of position, it didn’t magically make the job hunt easier. Now I was faced with trying to figure out where I wanted to be a project manager. I went to LinkedIn and turned on alerts for project and program management positions and waited. Within a day, I was bombarded with options...pharmaceutical companies, government agencies, hospitals, non-profits, and other corporations were all wanting to hire project managers with scientific backgrounds. So, I put in some applications for entry level positions (because even with a PhD, so many positions required several years of formal experience) and hoped to see some bites.
Months passed and I received a few rejection emails citing that they wanted to hire candidates with more experience, but it was mostly radio silent. Incredibly discouraged, I started reaching out to former grad students who had left academia. Some were people I knew personally, others were connections from mentors, and others still were cold messages I sent using my free trial of LinkedIn Premium.
Unsurprisingly, most of the cold messages on LinkedIn went unread. As an aside, my free trial of LinkedIn Premium was not wholly useful for my purposes—none of the messages or people I tried to connect with responded, and the insights I got while submitting applications were not enough to help make me more competitive. Because even the base subscription is pretty expensive and there are no student discounts, I cancelled my subscription. However, I did find a useful workaround—join different LinkedIn groups which allow you to message and connect with other members of the group, even if they are not in your network.
Fortunately, I was able to find people willing to talk with me and help me learn more through informational interviews about their own experience in their careers. These people and their experiences gave me a wealth of ideas about application strategies, organizations to apply to, and even resources to upskill myself in project management. The biggest take away from these informational interviews was learning how different people described the value of their PhD for different industries. It was explained to me that hiring managers unfamiliar with research-based master’s or doctoral degrees might just see it as extra schooling that drives up the cost of a potential candidate. Therefore, it is important to use your cover letter and resume to communicate that the degree is a certification in problem solving and that time in graduate school is an immersive experience solving complex problems for multiple stakeholders.
My network also helped me identify a few free short courses, webinars, and encouraged me to leverage my university’s subscription to LinkedIn learning to learn the lingo for the field of project management†. Together, the value proposition of my PhD in my cover letter and the courses in project management theory helped me strengthen my resume to more specifically give information that hiring managers look for, and this eventually resulted in me landing interviews.
The process of understanding and navigating the non-academic job market and application process is incredibly daunting. It starts grappling with the largely unspoken (but sometimes spoken) notion that a PhD without an academic job is a failure, or that a PhD with an industry job only cares about money and not the purity of research and problem solving. However, prioritizing yourself and your career needs does not make you a sellout, and our global scientific community needs all types—PhD scientists in all roles across academia, government, industry, and everywhere in between and in many different roles. Once you embrace that, your journey may then morph into decision paralysis as you try to determine which of many paths fits you best. Deciding on a path can lead to isolation and being overwhelmed by trying to find your way into a new domain by yourself, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely process. Reach out to others in your program, program alumni, your university career office, or other connections you may have, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. In the end, the best advice I can give is to approach it like any other problem you research—chunk it into small pieces and analyze what you need to do and what resources you need to complete each piece.
*There are a lot of other types of positions that don’t get talked about nearly enough. I found this list a little late in my search, but it is a wonderful jumping off point if you want to begin researching career options!
**The CliftonStrengths assessment does cost money, I was only able to participate because my university provided vouchers. However, the site does have resources that explains each of the 34 strengths and the 4 domains that the strengths are categorized as. Even if you can’t take the assessment, there is enough information that can help you identify what your strengths might be.
†If you are interested in project management, the Project Management Institute (PMI) is a great place to look for resources. They have a relatively affordable student membership for $32/year which gives you access to a variety of free resources. This includes the Project Management Body of Knowledge book which is a great way to learn about best practices in the field and is the knowledge that the Project Management Professional (PMP) and other PMI certifications are based on.